BuzzFeed, HuffPo's New Business Model: Drive Traffic with Hoaxes

This week, Huffington Post and BuzzFeed fell victim to hoaxes that radically boosted their site traffic. 

That’s because the sites, which like to portray themselves as serious political players—and have the connections with the Obama administration to prove it—base their revenue model on entertainment-oriented stories about cats (BuzzFeed) or celebrity pictures (Huffington Post). Pop cultural nonsense is the spoonful of sugar that makes biased leftist politics go down smoothly.

That viral traffic-driven strategy led both sites to embrace a hoax from The Bachelorette producer Elan Gale over the Thanksgiving weekend. Gale began tweeting about an encounter he’d supposedly had with a woman at the airport during a delayed flight. 

Rachel Zarrell of BuzzFeed—the same reporter who recently made light of an assault by one black girl on another in covering another viral story—quickly glommed on to Gale’s Twitter narrative. “This Epic Note-Passing War on a Delayed Flight Won Thanksgiving,” Zarrell wrote.

The story featured Gale confronting a woman who had Thanksgiving plans. After they got on a delayed flight, he supposedly sent her a glass of wine and a handwritten note reading, “Please accept this glass of wine! It is a gift from me to you. Hopefully if you drink it, you won’t be able to use your mouth to talk! Love, Elan.” 

The woman then supposedly wrote back: “You’re an awful person with no compassion. I’m sorry for your family that they should have to deal with you.” He then supposedly wrote back: “Thank you for your lovely note. The person who lacks compassion is you….I hate you very much. Eat my dick.” 

She then responded: “This is inappropriate beyond belief. I will be speaking to the authorities when we land.” And his final supposed retort: “When you speak to the authorities, please make sure they arrest you for cannibalism because you just ate my dick!” After the flight, the woman supposedly slapped him.

The BuzzFeed post received 1.44 million total views, over five thousand tweets, over 14,000 Facebook shares, and over 74,000 Facebook likes.

That prompted Huffington Post to jump in with both feet as well, with a piece titled “Annoying Airplane Passenger Thinks She’s The Only One Who Celebrates Thanksgiving.” Huffington Post concluded, “Elan, you are our Thanksgiving hero.” The post was Facebook liked over 419,000 times, shared 72,000 times on Facebook, and carried 4,500 comments.

It was all a hoax, of course. So how contrite were the traffic-magnet websites? Not particularly. BuzzFeed headlined, “The Truth Behind That Epic Note-Passing War On A Thanksgiving Flight.” That post got over 9,000 Facebook likes as well. “You got us, Elan!” Zarrell wrote, noting that Gale had also garnered 140,000 new Twitter followers. As for Huffington Post, their headline still hedged bets: “Elan Gale’s Viral Airplane Twitter Fight May Have Been a Hoax.” But that was after Huffington Post did a full segment on Huffington Post Live about the story, and ran another story titled, “Was ‘Bachelor’ Producer Elan Gale’s Airline Feud ‘Casually Sexist’?

Now, anyone can be fooled. But both BuzzFeed and Huffington Post benefit when they’re fooled. That’s true even with regard to political stories, their supposed prestige bread-and-butter. Last week, Huffington Post ran an old editorial by Linda Walther Tirado about how it felt to be a poor person. The story stated:

I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter, in the long term. I will never not be poor, so what does it matter if I don’t pay a thing and a half this week instead of just one thing? It’s not like the sacrifice will result in improved circumstances; the thing holding me back isn’t that I blow five bucks at Wendy’s. It’s that now that I have proven that I am a Poor Person that is all that I am or ever will be.

The article got over four million views. Touré of MSNBC quickly picked up on it, stating, “Poverty is sticky. It clings to you, leaves physical markers on the body.”

Only one problem: Tirado is a Democratic activist who lives in a home paid for by her parents and has been a private political consultant. Tirado later justified her hoax by saying she was poor, just not that poor:

How is it that someone with such clarity and evocation has any right to assert that they are poor? It is likely untrue. Well, it is and it isn’t. You have to understand that the piece you read was taken out of context, that I never meant to say that all of these things were happening to me right now, or that I was still quite so abject. I am not. I am reasonably normally lower working class. I am exhausted and poor and can’t make all my bills all the time but I reconciled with my parents when I got pregnant for the sake of the kids and I have family resources. I can always make the amount of money I need in a month, it’s just that it doesn’t always match the billing cycles.

All that matters is traffic numbers for Huffington Post and BuzzFeed. So when these self-styled gurus of journalistic standards speak up on behalf of double-sourcing, ask them how Elan Gale and Linda Walther Tirado are doing.


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